Can Yoga Really Help Treat a Migraine?
Science says the meditative practice could be a natural remedy for migraines that you should add to your standard treatment arsenal.
Dealing with migraines can be debilitating not just because of the pain itself, but also because of how challenging it can be to find an effective treatment. While there are plenty of different medications commonly prescribed for migraines, researchers have also explored more natural remedies for migraine relief, such as yoga. Most recently, the results of a new study suggest that, when combined with standard migraine medication, the meditative practice can be a seriously helpful way to manage pain.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, followed 114 adults with episodic migraines (defined by the researchers as having between four and 14 headaches per month) over the course of three months. At the start of the study, all participants were given a headache logbook and asked to write daily about a slew of migraine-related details, including how long each migraine lasted, what side effects they had, what triggered the migraine, and how bad the pain was. They were also given brief counseling on lifestyle changes they could make to try to ease their migraines, like sleeping well, eating a healthy diet, and trying to relax more and exercise regularly. (Related: 7 Self-Care Practices Every Migraine Sufferer Should Know)
From there, participants were randomly split into two groups: One that took standard migraine medication (which varied from person to person, but common migraine medical treatments include pain relievers and preventive medicine, either OTC or prescribed), and another that took migraine medication and started regularly doing yoga. The yoga practice involved prayer, breathing, and meditation, followed by relaxation techniques and physical yoga poses, according to the study. Initially, the yoga group began the practice with the help of an instructor, practicing three days a week for a month. Then participants shifted to doing yoga five times a week at home on their own.
After three months, all participants showed some improvement in their migraines (including in frequency, pain intensity, and the degree to which migraines affected daily life). But "the benefit was higher in the yoga group in all areas," according to the study's press release.
More specifically, the yoga group began the study with an average of roughly nine headaches per month, and ended with an average of about four or five headaches per month (a 48 percent reduction), according to the study's results. Comparatively, the medication-only group said they started with an average of between seven and eight migraines per month and ended with just under seven headaches per month (only a 12 percent drop).
The yogis also reduced the amount of medication they took on average by more than 47 percent—a finding that suggests yoga might not just help reduce migraine pain, but also treatment cost for some people, according to the study's press release.
Granted, the study only lasted three months, and the results are based on self-reported info, meaning it could be inconsistent, noted study author Rohit Bhatia, M.D., D.M., D.N.B., member of the American Academy of Neurology.
This isn't the first time yoga for migraines has been suggested.
In a smaller 2014 study published in the International Journal of Yoga, 60 migraine patients were randomly given either standard migraine care (again, some form of pain reliever or preventive medicine) or instructed to do yoga plus conventional medication, for five days a week. After six weeks, those in the yoga group not only reported having fewer migraines than those in the medication-only group, but they also described their migraines as less intense compared to those who didn't do yoga during the six-week intervention.
In another (even smaller) study published in the journal Headache, researchers randomly assigned a group of 19 adults with migraines to either an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) course (which included meditative techniques often used in yoga) or conventional migraine care for the same time period. After eight weeks, the participants who learned MBSR techniques reported having migraines that, when compared to the reports from those who followed standard migraine treatments, were less severe and lasted for a shorter period of time. (Related: What Are Ocular Migraines and How Are They Different from Regular Migraines?)
So, the research is getting there, but limited. Still, there's clearly something to be said about using yoga for migraine relief alongside your usual prevention tactics.
But before diving into why yoga might help with migraines, first it's important to understand how migraines begin. Technically they can be brought on by a huge range of different factors, including stress, anxiety, hormonal changes, and lack of food or sleep, among other possible causes, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). (Here's how to tell the difference between a headache vs. migraine.)
Experts say the exact mechanism behind migraines still isn't clear—but there are some theories. One of the most common theories argues that, when a wave of electricity spreads across the outer layer of a person's brain (aka the cortex), it can trigger the release of chemicals such as serotonin, which may then narrow blood vessels in the brain, resulting, for some, in migraine pain, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
So, how can yoga help with migraines?
While there's no cure for migraines, there are many different treatment and prevention strategies available, including medications and lifestyle changes. One strategy is stress management, which can come in the form of exercise and relaxation techniques, according to the NINDS. That's where yoga comes into the picture.
Just a heads up, though: Experts say the link between yoga and migraine relief isn't clear. "It is not absolutely understood how yoga helps prevent migraine," says Roderick Spears, M.D., regional medical director of neurology for Penn Specialty Practices.
However, there are some theories. For instance, it could be that regular yoga may help prevent an increase in calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), an amino acid that can dilate blood vessels in your brain (reminder: migraines are thought to happen as a result of blood vessel constriction), explains Dr. Spears. Research has found that CGRP is released during migraine attacks and has recently become "a primary path of treatment for prevention as well as abortive therapy [meaning therapy that stops the pain after it starts] for migraine attacks," says Dr. Spears.
Another theory: Yoga can help with muscle tension—which, for some people, can be a migraine trigger, especially when tension originates in the neck or shoulders, says Dr. Sachdev. In that sense, yoga could help "get to the meat of the problem" causing the migraine, he explains. (Try these yoga poses to open your shoulders.)
The meditative elements of yoga may also play a role in migraine relief, adds Ilan Danan, M.D., M.Sc., a neurologist and pain management specialist at the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute. Mindfulness and meditation can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that can slow your heart rate and regulate digestion), in turn slowing your heart and breathing rate, essentially helping you relax, he says. The result, for some (particularly those who consider stress to be a migraine trigger), can be less migraine pain. "Yoga can create a sense of balance and an overall improvement in things like [chronic] pain, headaches, and migraines," explains Dr. Danan. "It certainly acts in opposition to things like your fight-or-flight reaction, and the way your body acts in high-stress situations." (Related: Yoga Breathing Exercises for Relaxation)
A big caveat here, though: Yoga alone has not been found to be an effective treatment for migraines, says Dr. Sachdev. Experts say that, for most migraine sufferers, yoga would need to be paired with more conventional treatment, such as medication, to provide relief.
Still, Dr. Sachdev says he's recommended yoga for migraine patients in the past, particularly "for folks who have a clear element of neck or shoulder stiffness as a part of their [condition]," he explains. Dr. Danan says he's also recommended the practice alongside standard medication to help patients with migraine pain.
Overall, Dr. Sachdev says that lifestyle habits such as stress reduction (which yoga can definitely help with), a healthy diet, and general emotional balance can all help you manage migraine pain. "All of this is just as important as working with your doctor," he notes.
"[Doing yoga is] a way to be proactive about your health," adds Dr. Danan. "That's something I advocate for."